As we begin the Book of Vayikra this Shabbat we enter what most people consider to be the least interesting part of the Torah. We learn about Korbanot, offerings to God for a variety of situations, good and bad, to create a religious framework for the many ups and downs of life.
When a person felt close to God, a burnt offering was assigned. When a person sinned, there was a sin offering. When a person was guilty of an offense, there was a guilt offering. When a person felt satisfied with life, a peace offering was possible. These offerings were a way to bring God into the way we structured our society. It was built on a pagan system of offerings to the gods as a payment for favors requested. The God of Israel did not work that way. Korbanot were not about asking for favors; they were about the divine/human partnership to make this world better.
The entire system collapsed with the destruction of the first Temple. We were only allowed to make our offerings in one place and that place was the Temple. Without it we had no means of connecting to God. Quickly, prayer began to replace Korbanot and while there was a revival of offerings during the second Temple period, prayer continued to be a viable alternative. After all, it could be done anywhere and was not as expensive.
But the events of history only quickened the pace of the end of Korbanot. They were already showing the signs of their demise. There were two major flaws in the Temple system that were eroding support for these offerings.
The first problem was noted by the ancient prophets, who railed against Korbanot and against the people who brought them. What had started out as a system to help us feel close to God had turned into a way of avoiding responsibility. When a person sinned, the Korban was just one of the requirements to be right with God. One needed to confess the sin, make whatever restitution was required, resolve never to sin again and then close the deal with the offering. For many people, especially wealthy landowners and businessmen, the offering was a chance to “pay off” God so they could continue to sin in their practices and lifestyle. It was like asking a 2 billion dollar a year company to pay a paltry thousand dollars fine for pollution; it was just another added cost of doing business. For them the ritual was meaningless.
At the other end of the spectrum, the cost of animals suitable for offerings was becoming so expensive that lower income families could not afford to be right with God. They were effectively shut out of the Temple. Korbanot were what they needed to be right with God but the cost had become outrageous. To those to whom the ritual had meaning, they could not afford to practice what they yearned to do.
Korbanot lived on, if not in life, it lived in the Torah. Translations of the Torah turned Korbanot, a way to draw near to God, into “Sacrifices” what we give up from ourselves and our possessions in order to show our commitment to God. The change in terminology changed the orientation from God to humanity. This too harkened back to pagan times when asking the gods for a big favor, one offered a more expensive sacrifice. The more you wanted, the more you were expected to give.
The idea of sacrifice, of giving up something for our religion is thus a very old way to think about the relationship between ourselves and God. Clearly the most precious thing that could be sacrificed would be our children. Yet Abraham showed us that God puts an upper limit on sacrifices. Human sacrifice is not allowed. Of course, self-sacrifice, martyrdom, dying for the sake of our faith, was still allowed until there were so many martyrs that the Rabbis had to limit the possibility of martyrdom to just three categories. We must die rather than kill another person. We choose death over sexual immorality and we choose martyrdom rather than perform a public act of apostasy. Otherwise we worry about the sin later when we are able to repent.
I once attended a business seminar and the trainer asked us what was most important in our lives. He then asked us, if we were 90 stories up on a building under construction, what would induce us to walk across the I-beam? Would we do it for our job? Probably not. Would we do it for our family? Certainly. Would we walk the I-beam so high off the ground for cash? How much cash could induce us to make the walk? Would we do it for a cure for our health? For Immortality? Would we walk it for fame? We are prepared to walk the beam only for what is most important in our lives.
Down the street, down the hill from my house is a small military cemetery. Buried there are those who were prepared to give their lives for their country. Some of them died on foreign shores. It was not the soil of the United States they were defending. It was the freedoms that we cherish here in our country. They walked the beam to defend each of us and to defend the freedoms we enjoy. We are not given our freedom on a silver platter, as an Israeli poet once said, these young men and women who died in war are a platter more expensive than silver and gold.
What are we prepared to sacrifice for God and country? I attended this week, a lecture on civil discourse. Two journalists, one from the conservative end of the spectrum, the other from the liberal side, are traveling together not because they agree on the direction our country should move, but to teach that we should be able to talk to each other about what we believe in without putting each other down.
They talked about how important it is to know the arguments and opinions of those who hold different positions than we do. To read and listen to commentaries that we don’t agree with is as important as reading and listening to the commentaries we DO agree with. People who disagree with us are not bad people. For the sake of discussion, are we prepared to sacrifice some of our most closely held beliefs? Is our world so rigid that we can’t sacrifice some room for those with a different point of view?
The talk in the media this week was about how lawmakers couldn’t get together and pass an important piece of legislation. That principle was more important than compromise. I wish I could say that the principle was doing what was right for the country but the principles that the representatives stood for were personal beliefs. They couldn’t, shall I say, Sacrifice their position for something that was for the good of the country? I am not unhappy that the bill failed; it was, in my opinion a bad law. But the people who killed it were not worried about what it would do to the country; they were worried about what it would say about themselves if they compromised and thus violate positions they have taken. The ability to govern a nation depends not just on what we stand for but what we are prepared to compromise in order to get the job done.
This past week was the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC. I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I was there last year during the height of the Presidential campaign. Candidates from both parties came to speak and the delegates to the conference debated with their friends if they should go to the presentations by candidates they disagreed with. I sat with my family and friends through every single presentation. Some of them were hard to listen to. But I felt that each one needed to be heard. AIPAC has strict rules that delegates are not allowed to “Boo” or disrespect a presenter. Everyone is entitled to their point of view. We must not sacrifice our civility to our opinions.
This congregation stands affiliated with Conservative Judaism. For the sake of conserving our faith, we are prepared to sometimes sacrifice traditions and sometimes sacrifice modernity to find our path to God. What we give up is small compared to what we gain. We stand in the middle in a time when others have hardened their positions to the right and to the left. In a time when others believe that life is all or nothing, we say that there is a different path. One that requires thought and understanding, one that requires faith and sacrifice.
There are few things in life that require the sacrifice of our lives. There is much agreement about what is needed to live a comfortable and meaningful life. There are times however, where we must make decisions about what is best for community and country. There are times when we have to balance what is right for us with what is right for everyone else. It is not reasonable to believe that every time there is a disagreement that we must win. Sometimes when we find we have to walk that I-beam, it is OK to have someone meet us halfway. Sometimes we sacrifice some of our goals to attain goals that are even more important.
Life is not a game we win by defeating others; it is one we win by working together, by sacrificing for the sake of the greater good. Perhaps this is not the same as bringing a Korban to the Temple of Jerusalem, but when we sacrifice a little for a greater cause, we find we can still draw closer to God.
May God bring us to a world where we can make room for each other and thus make room for peace as we say ….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, April 1, 2017.